The improper analogy between Joshua Katz and Socrates (letter)

To the editor: 

Nadya Williams’ opinion article arguing that personality judgments of public intellectuals subject has left me feeling queasy. In particular improper and ill-advised turns out to me Williams’s advice that there’s a helpful analogy to be drawn between the new dismissal of Joshua Katz from Princeton and Socrates’ trial and execution at Athens—with the implication that there are one or two issues right here which we may be informed from the Athenians. 4 sides of the analogy strike me as particularly tough.

First, with a view to make the analogy paintings, Williams has to crassly misrepresent the ancient realities of classical Athens. She calls Socrates a “pupil” who was once within the trade of “grooming scholars to be considerate and engaged electorate” (by the way, will have to electorate now not be considerate and engaged?) or even slept with one in all his scholars, Alcibiades. However historical Athens had no universities, and Socrates was once now not a tenured professor with formal energy over scholars enrolled in his lessons and depending on his grading (and Socrates’ patchy newsletter document shouldn’t have certified him for a tenured professorship anyway). If anything else, Alcibiades was once Socrates’ social and financial awesome. Distorting the previous to make it have compatibility the prevailing isn’t illuminating; it’s merely unhealthy historical past.

Secondly, consistent with our historical resources, Socrates was once condemned in a court docket of regulation for “now not worshipping the gods said via the town, bringing in new gods and corrupting the younger.” Whilst there was a lot scholarly debate in regards to the actual that means of the ones fees, to handle, as Williams does, that Socrates was once condemned as a result of his ‘improper personality’ as a substitute of positive particular behaviors and movements grossly oversimplifies issues. Certainly, if there’s any level to the analogy, it will have to most likely be that the Athenians already understood that individuals who behave in unacceptable techniques needs to be attempted via an said authoritative frame and their conduct proven to have violated established regulations and regulations. (Students have frequently noticed that all through precise trials, together with most likely that of Socrates, Athenian litigants steadily tried personality assassination anyway—however that may be a other tale, and now not one that I’ve ever prior to heard being mentioned as an exquisite or inspiring function of Athenian society).

Thirdly, it’s erroneous to mention, as Williams states a number of occasions in her article, that Socrates was once condemned via “the Athenians:” he was once actually condemned via a jury consisting only of white, male grownup electorate, a lot of whom can have had enslaved individuals of their families. This places the point of interest on a urgent query which Williams’ article raises, however which she does now not solution: who will probably be the judges within the trials of personality which she advocates? No doubt, she would now not handle that on this recognize, too, the analogy with Socrates’ trial holds excellent?

In the end, and maximum worryingly, when Williams writes that “Socrates’s protection within the procedure, in regards to the prime quality of his scholarship because the ‘gadfly’ stinging Athenians into considering extra deeply, sounded as tone-deaf to these Athenians who voted to sentence him as Katz’s personal phrases ring now to a couple” (adopted via the statement that “cancellations of public intellectuals are by no means random”), it’s nearly as though she is implying that execution—via hemlock?—relatively than “mere” dismissal could be a good suggestion relating to Katz and different students convicted of overstepping the mark as neatly. Yet again, the query rises how some distance Williams thinks we will have to push the analogy with the traditional Athenians, whom she turns out to consider such a lot with regards to judgements of the “decency of personality.” It might be excellent to listen to whether or not she and the editor of IHE feel sorry about the implication of her phrases.

All in all, the item is an instance of the way now not to make use of the previous to lead the prevailing: it’s traditionally erroneous, conceptually insufficient, unedifying in tone, and sinister in its implications. A few of its argumentative methods resemble the ones of the pernicious tales about antiquity informed via positive teams at the some distance proper of the political spectrum. It might paintings rather neatly as a spoof of such tales, however because it stands, it’s an unhelpful—and probably even damaging—contribution to a delicate debate.

–Luuk Huitink
Assistant professor in Historic Greek
College of Amsterdam

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